It’s been a rough time to be an NHL ice hockey fan since the turn of the century.
Although hockey has always been the fourth of four major sports in America in terms of popularity, the hockey-following minority has always displayed a tremendous devotion to their sport. The past decade has seen our league’s rapid (over?) expansion southward cause a lag in overall player talent, and big market General Managers’ penchant for late-season “rental” trades set a bad precedent of inflated player salaries. These two factors became major causes of the 2004-05 NHL season lock-out as the league and players’ association hammered out the current CBA.
The NHL returned after the lock-out with many adjustments made to the game — from fundamental changes in league rules and season scheduling to a fresh approach of clubs’ management under the new CBA and league salary cap. In an attempt to win back their small but rabid fan base, the league tinkered with its product to bring us a “new and improved” NHL. With the trade deadline recently passed, and the league entering the final run to the playoffs, it seems like an ideal time to reflect on this “new” NHL and consider which adjustments to the game are winning with fans and which have not gone over so well.
The elimination of the two-line pass infraction/ the return of delayed (tag-up) offsides:
These changes, like most of the adjustments, were made by the NHL to open up the game for faster, more offensive play. In my opinion, both of these rule changes (which had been in discussion long before the locked out 04-05 NHL season) have been very good for hockey.
Elimination of the two-line pass allows teams the option of hanging a sniper in the neutral zone and trying to send him on a breakaway with a long pass out of the defensive zone. Just as intended, the result has been more breakaways and odd-man rushes (hence, fast-paced offense). Teams run a risk by gunning for cherry-pickers with these long passes-if the pass is intercepted, they’re trapped and outnumbered in the defensive zone. When the pass does connect, it gives the trailing team great opportunities to get back into the game.
The return of delayed offside calls has also helped improve the game’s flow and speed as intended. For non-hockey fans, delayed offside means that if an attacking team has a man in the offensive zone when the puck gets sent in (a man “offside”), the attacking player(s) who is offside has a chance to vacate the zone before play is stopped for the infraction.
Before the return of delayed offside, the play was whistled dead as soon as the puck crossed into the zone when an attacking player was offside. The result is less whistles and more opportunity to salvage a broken or mistimed play. Less whistles is a great thing for fans; we call ice hockey the fastest game on two feet for a reason, and non-stop action is something unique hockey holds against the other three “major” team sports.
Football fundamentally has a constant start/stop/start pace. Baseball, as we all know, doesn’t exactly overwhelm viewers with action (it’s a slow game that relies on nuances, situations and brief bursts of athleticism). Pro basketball, while smoother and faster than both football and baseball, has the constraint of the shot clock, and almost as many rules and regular stoppages as a JV high school field hockey game. Also, I have to mention that the NBA and its product are terrible.
Teams called for Icing can’t change lines:
This rule was a real winner that effectively caused the intended result of more offense and more scoring. Back when, if your team was trapped in the defensive zone and getting peppered, all you had to do was get puck control long enough to ice the puck to the other end of the rink. When the icing was whistled, you made a line change, got fresh legs and regained composure to stop the offensive assault.
Now, when defensive teams ice the puck, the same five players have to stay out for the defensive zone draw. If you’ve ever played an organized game of ice hockey, you know how tired you become 45 seconds into a shift. When you’re trapped in your own end, scrambling to fight off an assault, you get even more tired. Icing is no longer the easy way out of this situation, and dogged skaters getting lit up after an icing has greatly boosted offensive hockey.
Changes to the rink/ rules restricting puck-handling by the goaltender:
These related changes have had a very understated impact on the new NHL product. First, let’s look at the often overlooked adjustment to the spacing of the three zones and goaltending area on the hockey rink. The NHL made a subtle change by slightly decreasing the neutral zone (simultaneously expanding the offensive zones). That’s four additional feet in each offensive zone-slight enough to be overlooked glancing at the rink but more than enough space to impact play.
Teams have more room to work the puck on the powerplay and create offense. It’s also four less feet in the neutral zone to get trapped in and a shorter distance to overcome when attempting to get a puck deep or on net. This slight adjustment has seen a positive result in play with faster breakouts and more sustained offensive assaults.
In addition to changing the zones, the league also trimmed the goaltending crease and placed a goofy trapezoid behind the net to restrict goaltenders from handling the puck and slowing down play. A smaller crease means less cheesy goaltender interference calls and (thankfully) fewer calls to the “war room” in Toronto on “blue-collar goals” scored in front of the net.
Hockey needed this badly. Before the lockout you couldn’t sneeze near the keeper’s big blue crease and have a legitimate goal stand.
The inclusion of the trapezoid (keepers who touch the puck outside of the trapezoid get a penalty for delay of game) was, in my opinion, an unnecessary and silly move. Starting with Ron Hextall, the goaltender has evolved into a 3rd defenseman who can retrieve a hard dump and send it to a teammate for a breakout. What’s so bad about that? If you don’t like it, then dump it in softer and use a little touch! The most bothersome part of this rule to me is that the intended result could have been accomplished without the trapezoid rule by simply making ‘keepers “fair game” outside of the crease.
That’s how it was in the days of â€˜Old Time Hockey’ and that’s how it should be now. All this “protect the goaltender” junk … protect him from what? He’s protected with equipment, literally, from head to toe! If Martin Brodeur, the best puck handling (and overall) keeper in the game, knew that he could get legally trucked by a big winger in the corner or behind the net, he wouldn’t handle a dump-in unless he was sure he had plenty of time. â€˜Problem’ solved! Also, c’mon… a trapezoid? Couldn’t it be a rectangle? It looks stupid painted on the ice, but again, the more important point is that this rule was not necessary.
The Shootout as a tie-breaker after the five-minute Overtime Period:
This new format to decide tied games had been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. The breakaway in ice hockey has often been called the most exciting play in all of sports, and rightfully so. The move by the league to use a breakaway shootout after the 4-on-4, five-minute overtime period was instilled to be both a gift to fans of the NHL as well as an answer to casual hockey fans who couldn’t accept that there were “so many tied regular season games.”
Now that the breakaway has become part of the NHL game, I would advise my boyhood self to be careful of what he wishes for. Although these breakaways are still very entertaining and beautiful (that’s right, beautiful) displays of pro hockey ability, the new frequency of the shootouts has killed much of the excitement in â€˜the most exciting play in sports.’
Those rare mid-game breakaway penalty calls don’t seem as important and exhilarating as they used to, and it’s very frustrating to watch your team lose the extra point in a shootout loss when they had dominated, yet not come out on top of the regulation play.
Side Note: Did I mention that I root for the Flyers? I have ten bucks that says a handicapped 13-year old girl can deke Martin Biron out of his jock and score on a breakaway nine out of ten tries!
The crackdown on interference calls by refs:
A strange adjustment, the “new” NHL ordered its officials to re-interpret the interference and hooking calls in a much stricter fashion. This very subjective shift has had a dramatic change on the style of the game, and, although it has surely resulted in more speed, power plays and overall offense, I’m not certain that the change has been a total success. Basically, instructing refs to be more stringent in calling the same rule that had always existed has created some confusion and inconsistency on both the players’ and refs’ parts.
For one, players who had been trained all of their lives to slightly (and, before the change in interpretation, legally) hinder puck-carriers using their sticks have had to re-teach themselves how to play solid defense without putting their team in a shorthanded situation. Secondly, the refs’ obligation to crack down on these infractions has spurred them to call many “ticky-tack” penalties. No longer free to call what they professionally deem to be illegal interference or hooking, refs call everything that might be illegal interference based on the stick position of the defender and the posture of the puck carrier.
While this plan to eliminate the obstruction slowing down the game was a good one in theory, but the execution has ultimately forced refs to frequently blow the whistle on quality defensive hockey. Worse yet, it has influenced puck-carriers to actively draw cheesy calls by pinning defenders’ sticks under their arms and taking dives like European soccer players.
The new CBA salary cap:
As a Philadelphia Flyers fan, the new salary cap of the NHL was billed to hurt my team, as well as deep-pocketed, free-spending hockey markets such as Toronto, Detroit, New York, etc.
Needless to say, when the Flyers suffered their worst season in club history last year, it was at least partially a result of the ownership’s new inability to purchase the missing pieces of talent as they had in the past. Despite my team’s recent struggles, I’m really excited to see the parity that currently exists in today’s NHL. Teams are forced to build their rosters from within and through the draft. Teams that could never afford to pluck high-priced, big-name free agents at the deadline for a boost toward the Cup are now on a level playing field with the Red Wings, Rangers, and Flyers.
Best yet, with the cap in place and the talent spread around the league, teams are not running away from the pack and others are not falling into irrelevance come playoff time. In conjunction with the schedule adjustments, this means that all 82 regular season games count more than ever. It also means that the St. Louis Blues and L.A. Kings of the world could, just maybe, spank the hell out of Ottawa on any given night.
The new NHL schedule loaded with Division match-ups:
The NHL’s decision to alter the regular season schedule to create more divisional matchups was a brilliant move. Teams now face their closest rivals eight times in the regular season, and this format has revved up the many bitter rivalries that already existed throughout the league.
With all of these divisional games, as well as the parity-inducing salary cap, the very best teams don’t miss out on the playoffs because they meet their rivals in an unfortunate part of the season (perhaps during a month in which key players were hurt).
If your squad belongs in the playoffs, you’ve got plenty of division games sprinkled throughout your regular season to prove it. Match-ups such as “Detroit vs. Colorado” or “Philadelphia vs. New Jersey” that bring out the best in player competition, fan involvement and regional relevancy are allowed to cook up throughout the year, and their direct effect on playoff qualification only heats things up further.
The fighting Instigator Rule:
Okay, NHL, you’re now entering the “no-fly” zone. It’s no secret that the sport of hockey has been frequently criticized for allowing fistfights to remain as part of the game. Criticism is fine and good-how else are Mr. and Mrs. Worrisome going to fill the hours they could spend actually raising little Johnny Worrisome? The fact is that fighting has always been a part of the game, and will (should) always remain as such.
There’s no competition like ice hockey, as anyone who’s played the game will tell you. Tempers flair, cheap shots are taken and talented skaters are always in the crosshairs of the opposition. For that reason, every team keeps at least one “goon” on the roster. The opposition has to know that there’s a rabid, monstrous, son-of-a-lumberjack from Western Canada that’s willing and able to put a public whooping on anyone that steps over the line. Players often police themselves by dropping the gloves, and they always have.
However, the new NHL has instilled an instigator rule stating that any player “instigating” (another subjective crackdown) a scrap in the final five minutes of a game gets a one-game suspension. The coach of the suspended player gets fined $10,000. Worst of all, the suspension and fine get doubled for each additional instigator call throughout the season. So what’s the big deal? Players can still scrap in the preceding 55 minutes of the game, right? Sure they can, and they often do. However, when there’s 10 minutes left in the third, what’s to stop someone from getting dirty on a star player in an attempt to injure him?
Chances are Knuckles McGoonman won’t be on the ice at the same time as the dirty player between then and the 5:00 mark. Hockey fans can attest to the
noticeable rise in head injuries or cheap shot injuries that have occurred throughout the league recently, and gradual attempts to cut out fighting (such as this rule) are a major factor. Players don’t have respect for one another anymore, and, if fighting ever gets completely eliminated, they won’t have to. I consider this rule to be the first step on the slippery slope to get fighting out of the game.
That’s very bad for hockey, and the league should consider its longtime, passionate fans before catering to a market that doesn’t exist and (thanks to the league’s pitiful television contract) likely never will. I’ve rolled with the phantom interference calls and I’m living with that stupid trapezoid, but-mark my words, NHL-if you keep prodding to cut out the fights, we’re over. I’ll watch my local NBA take six steps and dunk 30 times a night, thank you very much.
As you can see, I have a very mixed take on the many changes made by the NHL in an attempt to win back fans and create new ones.
Some of these changes (elimination of the 2-line pass/ no defensive changes after icing/the glorious new schedule) were long overdue. Others (the flipping trapezoid/the shootout/the instigator rule) are unnecessary and sometimes harmful to the product we hockey fans love so dearly.
In my case, I take the good with the bad and continue to tune in and watch every second of NHL ice hockey I can get my eyes on. I hope the people that control the league remember to value the opinions of their longtime fans over the potential new fans they are vainly trying win over.
Hockey fans fall in love with the game at a young age, and remain faithful to it forever (kind of like high school sweethearts celebrating a 50 year anniversary). Like I mentioned before, we hockey folk are a passionate and loyal breed, and I hope the league doesn’t seek any additional, unnecessary “fixes” for a game that was never really (aside from the financial and business side of the sport) broken.
Oh well … should they continue to tinker and wind up destroying the professional version of my favorite sport, I’ve always got the NBA.